Missing in Action

Workshirt-wearing liberal tree-huggers on the lam: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and David Strathairn in John Sayles's Limbo

John Sayles doesn't make too many movies, but he does tell too many stories. This addiction has been to his advantage in the past, in that he has managed to write clever B-movie scripts for other people's films (such as Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling) in addition to churning out short stories, a novel, and many detailed scripts for himself to direct. At their best, the Sayles-directed movies (such as Matewan or Lone Star) are rich with character nuances, subplots, unexplored social issues, and respectable twists. At their worst, they're overloaded with significance: They keep reminding us why we should be watching them.

Sayles's new Limbo, which is set in Alaska, tries to break this pattern. After a crowded opening, the film spends its last half with just three people, and any sense of plot momentum or even a deadline gets fainter and fainter until the closing shot of a coda that exists only in the audience's mind. For Sayles or any other director, this deliberately unresolved finish is mildly experimental, not to mention a rare display of trust in the viewer's imagination. But all the backstory that precedes it is unduly abundant. Mock or praise his tree-hugging, civil-rights-defending, workshirt-wearing liberal heart as you will, but agree on this: John Sayles is a backstory junkie.

The Alaska of Limbo is in danger of being mythologized through real estate. Sayles's first images are apparently not even his own, since they're revealed as part of a developer's promo film, which (naturally) gets the story all wrong when it comes to this unique landscape. Quickly, the movie introduces characters and relationships that aren't just flawed but dangerously broken. There's a single-mom folksinger named Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio); a brooding ex-athlete and -fisherman named Joe (David Strathairn); a teenager named Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), who was once anorexic but now just cuts herself, even as she writes beautiful prose and poetry; and a whole host of supplemental figures itching to announce their personal platforms. Arriviste lesbian ex-lawyer innkeepers. Aging out-of-work salmon fishermen. Younger, about-to-be-laid-off canning-factory workers. Drug smugglers, con artists, and even a bush pilot named Smilin' Jack (Kris Kristofferson).

Donna the folksinger hangs on to the coffeehouse mystique so desperately that she seems to know only sad and wistful songs: "Better Off Without You," Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day," and a tune co-written by Sayles called "Loving You Is Hell Enough for Me." Clearly, Donna and the rest of these testy folks need some emotional rehab. They're living in a gorgeous piece of America, but they can't see beyond their own clouded inner worlds. I know that supplying a surplus of inner pain is one way to guarantee that a script will go somewhere else (ideally, toward curing the pain), but the general mournfulness and crabbiness of Limbo's opening is nearly too much to take. Sayles even throws in a running motif of people correcting one another's word usage, as if his characters were stocked with pocket thesauri instead of jackknives.

Gloomy-but-nice Joe and nice-but-flinty Donna are bound to end up together, and they do--and it turns out that poetic, floundering Noelle is Donna's daughter. There's just enough goodness and even mercy in each of these three people to suggest that hope is somewhere on the horizon, maybe even closer than the mountain peaks in the background. But just as Joe is showing his library to Donna, who's giving him more than the time of day, Joe's long-missing brother Bobby (Casey Siemaszko) shows up and gives the story a new place to go. Bobby has to sail up the coast to meet some clients, and he needs Joe to be his crew. And Joe decides to take his new surrogate family along for the ride.

Limbo has explained plenty of things at this halfway point, but they have more to do with lesbian innkeeping and industrial downturns in salmon canning than with why Donna and Noelle would even agree to go along with the mysterious Bobby, or why Joe himself would think this is a bright idea. Sure enough, Bobby is just an ill-fated ticket to our entry into the place where Limbo really wants to go, which is lost in the woods, i.e., in metaphor-laden "limbo." Joe, Donna, and Noelle find themselves abandoned and hunted in a rainy forest, stuck in a rickety old cabin and dependent upon one another.

Serves 'em right, I figured. I also wondered whether Sayles was finally cutting his own leash in forcing himself to leave social context behind. He casts off tendentious politics and moves into his own, truly unique arena: the ability to tell a clean story about a messy situation. Limbo's surrogate family-to-be has little to do except forage for food, huddle by the fire, and attempt to draw some rescuers--who might actually want to kill them. Conveniently, Noelle finds the diary of another young girl from years before, which has apparently been left there by the Parallel Metaphor Wilderness Airdrop Service. Noelle reads from the diary, and Joe and Donna listen, and even as they starve and worry they sort of calm down.

The diary is actually a neat idea, especially since Noelle isn't forthcoming about its true contents. But this hapless trio is more of an abstraction than an actuality: Sayles etches even minor characters in great detail, but he can't seem to get any of them to say, beyond griping, what they really feel. Here's where his likable cast lets him down. Mastrantonio has always been interesting, and now that she's past the industry's absurd cutoff age for starlets, it's good to see her in a more mature role. As for the unseasoned Martinez, at least she has her guard down. And Strathairn is in the same league as William H. Macy or Gary Sinise--a deep-thinking, often intriguing actor who lacks a commanding voice. But he's also a bit too much like Gary Cooper: Unless he's going over the top (as in L.A. Confidential), he's basically saying, "Yup" in every line. And so are his Limbo woodsmates, who barely know one another and yet they're trying to bond.

So once again Sayles has hired decent people, followed admirable politics, and even challenged his own unique (though limiting) writing style to create something new. But what he has here lacks the mystical whimsy of The Secret of Roan Inish or the emotional purity of Passion Fish. He's got a nouveau near-paradise fable-thing going, but in spite of the majestic scenery, all his characters manage to do is stumble toward an apologetic unity. They're in a grand forest of possibility, but they mostly just lean on the trees.


Limbo starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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